“wall street bankers are stupid” — 5/21/18

Today’s selection — from The Big Short by Michael Lewis. 

As financial cracks began to appear in 2007, bankers were still claiming that all was well, a woman who was a stock analyst at Oppenheimer was the first to claim loudly that the proverbial emperor had no clothes:

“Meredith Whitney was an obscure analyst of financial firms for an obscure financial firm, Oppenheimer and Co., who, on October 31, 2007, ceased to be obscure. On that day she predicted that Citigroup had so mismanaged its affairs that it would need to slash its dividend or go bust. It’s never entirely clear on any given day what causes what inside the stock market, but it was pretty clear that, on October 31, Meredith Whitney caused the market in financial stocks to crash. By the end of the trading day, a woman whom basically no one had ever heard of, and who could have been dismissed as a nobody, had shaved 8 percent off the shares of Citi­group and $390 billion off the value of the U.S. stock market. Four days later, Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince resigned. Two weeks later, Citigroup slashed its dividend.

Meredith Whitney
“From that moment, Meredith Whitney became E. F. Hutton: When she spoke, people listened. Her message was clear: If you want to know what these Wall Street firms are really worth, take a cold, hard look at these crappy assets they’re holding with borrowed money, and imagine what they’d fetch in a fire sale. The vast assemblages of highly paid people inside them were worth, in her view, nothing. All through 2008, she followed the bankers’ and brokers’ claims that they had put their problems behind them with this write-down or that capital raise with her own claim: You’re wrong. You’re still not facing up to how badly you have mismanaged your business. You’re still not acknowl­edging billions of dollars in losses on subprime mortgage bonds. The value of your securities is as illusory as the value of your people. Rivals accused Whitney of being overrated; bloggers accused her of being lucky. What she was, mainly, was right. But it’s true that she was, in part, guessing. There was no way she could have known what was going to happen to these Wall Street firms, or even the extent of their losses in the subprime mortgage market. The CEOs themselves didn’t know. ‘Either that or they are all liars,’ she said, ‘but I assume they really just don’t know.’

“Now, obviously, Meredith Whitney didn’t sink Wall Street. She’d just expressed most clearly and most loudly a view that turned out to be far more seditious to the social order than, say, the many cam­paigns by various New York attorneys general against Wall Street corruption. If mere scandal could have destroyed the big Wall Street investment banks, they would have vanished long ago. This woman wasn’t saying that Wall Street bankers were corrupt. She was saying that they were stupid. These people whose job it was to allocate capi­tal apparently didn’t even know how to manage their own.”

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The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
Author: Michael Lewis
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Copyright  2011, 2010 by Michael Lewis
Pages: xvi-xvii


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mahatma gandhi and adolf hitler — 3/29/18

Today’s selection — from Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann.

Gandhi advised the British to give up the fight against Hitler and Mussolini, and advised Jews in Germany to offer passive resistance to the Nazi regime:

“Gandhi’s position on nonviolence was absolute. Aggression could never be returned. He did not believe that women should resist rape, but preferred that they should ‘defeat’ their assailants by remaining passive and silent. Correspondingly, he did not believe that the vic­tims of war should resist attackers by physical force, but rather ought to offer satyagraha — that is, noncompliance with the invaders. ‘If there ever could be a justifiable war in the name of and for humanity, war against Germany to prevent the wanton persecution of a whole race would be completely justified,’ he wrote. ‘But I do not believe in any war.’

“He advised the British to give up the fight against Hitler and Mussolini: ‘Let them take possession of your beautiful island … allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.’ Furthermore, in one of his most controversial arguments, Gandhi advised the Jews in Germany to offer passive resistance to the Nazi regime — and to give up their own lives as sacrifices. He told the Jews to pray for Adolf Hitler. ‘If even one Jew acted thus,’ he wrote, ‘he would salve his self respect and leave an example which, if it became infectious, would save the whole of Jewry and leave a rich heritage to mankind besides.’

Gandhi leading the 1930 Salt March, a notable example of Satyagraha.
“Gandhi compounded this error of judgment by offering praise to Hitler. ‘I do not consider Herr Hitler to be as bad as he is depicted,’ he wrote in May 1940. ‘He is showing an ability that is amazing and he seems to be gaining his victories without much bloodshed. ‘ Ap­parently, he saw some parallel between his own efforts to return In­dia to the Indians and Hitler’s invasion of French territory to reclaim that lost to Germany under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War. He regretted that Hitler had employed war rather than nonviolence to achieve his aims, but nonetheless averred that the Germans of the future ‘will honour Herr Hitler as a genius, a brave man, a matchless organizer and much more.’

“The American journalist Louis Fischer brought up this subject with Gandhi in 1946. By that time, the concentration camps had been discovered, and the true, awful extent of the Holocaust re­vealed. It might have been expected that the benefit of hindsight would have tempered the old man’s views. It had not. ‘Hitler killed five million Jews,’ Gandhi told Fischer, ‘It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs. . . . . As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions.’ “

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Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire
Author: Alex Von Tunzelmann
Publisher: Picador, Henry Holt and Company
Copyright 2007 by Alex von Tunzelmann
Pages: 110-111


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hitchcock’s famed psycho shower scene — 2/16/18

Today’s selection — from The Dark Side of Genius by Donald Spoto. Though director Alfred Hitchcock was already regarded as a genius, his movie Psycho was originally panned by critics, but became an enormous commercial success and was ultimately praised by critics. The Psycho shower scene in which star Janet Leigh’s character is stabbed to death has become perhaps the most famous and studied scene in movie history:
“In a matter of weeks, from late November until early January [of 1960], Hitch­cock directed Psycho at the Revue Studios, the television branch at Uni­versal Pictures that Paramount rented for him. Everything was done in utmost secrecy. The clapper-board and company designation for the film was ‘Wimpy,’ the better to throw everyone off the track and discour­age reading of the novel that had just appeared.
” ‘I enjoyed making Psycho,’ Anthony Perkins said. ‘In fact, I ac­cepted the film before I’d even read the script. [Hitchcock and I] got on very well, and he let me make several changes and suggestions. It was my idea that I should eat candy throughout the film. I thought it would be more interesting if the killer were a compulsive candy-eater.’ Per­kins had no part in the legendary shower sequence, however, for he was in New York that week preparing a Broadway role; Hitchcock used a stand-in for the shadowy figure of the man disguised as the old woman.
” ‘From the start,’ Joseph Stefano recalled, ‘Hitchcock had decided
to use a nude professional model for the shots in which a torso would be glimpsed, so he wouldn’t have to cope with a trembling actress.’ About that central sequence, which has evoked more study, elicited more comment, and generated more shot-for-shot analysis from a technical viewpoint than any other in the history of the cinema, Hitchcock always retained a cool attitude. And rightly so, for he delegated the design and the shooting of it to the brilliant artist who had created the title designs for Vertigo and North by Northwest, and who, eventually, would do so for Psycho, too. ‘I’m going to get Saul Bass to do a storyboard for the shower scene,’ he told Joseph Stefano when they reached this point in the script, ‘so we know exactly what we’re going to do.’

“For Janet Leigh, this role and this scene provided the challenge of her career.

‘He sent me the book before I agreed to do the role, and he told me the small and not very interesting part of Marion Crane would be improved and made more sympathetic. And it was. By the time we were halfway through photog­raphy, everyone knew we had a good picture, but no one had any idea it was going to make history.
‘He told me he hired me because I was an actress. “I’m not going to direct every nuance,” he said. “But if you don’t come up with what I need, I’ll bring it out of you — and if you give too much, I’ll tone it down. What you do has to fit into my framework and within my camera angle.” I took him quite lit­erally, and I knew my range and intention had to be for him and with him, and we related to one another very respectfully.
‘The planning of the shower sequence was left up to Saul Bass, and Hitch­cock followed his storyboard precisely. Because of this, although we worked on it for almost a week, it went very professionally and very quickly. But it was, of course, very grueling to stand in a shower getting drenched for a week.’
“As it happened, Hitchcock made two important — and personally re­vealing — additions to Bass’s designs: the quick shot of the knife en­tering the woman’s abdomen (done by a fast-motion reverse shot), and the shot of blood and water running down the drain. ‘It had been my idea to do it entirely as a bloodless sequence without overt violence,’ according to Saul Bass, ‘but he insisted on inserting those two shots.’ And to the description of the brutal murder in the screenplay — only generally stated by the writer — Hitchcock added to shot 116: ‘The slashing. An impression of a knife slashing, as if tearing at the very screen, ripping the film.’ If there is a vicious anger throughout Psycho, this is the single moment that spreads that anger before and after it.
“But it was not the brutality of this sequence that caused alarm at Paramount: it was the unprecedented shot (and sound) of a toilet being
flushed. This, not the scarcely glimpsed, soft-focus nudity in the shower, was the most iconoclastic image in the picture — more influential than Hitchcock’s killing off of the leading lady almost halfway through the film. Toilet imagery, as mentioned, and allusions to bodily functions not only surfaced in Hitchcock’s humor — they also mark a recurrent, obsessive motif in his films. Everything about Psycho was bold; and in Hitchcock’s mind, perhaps nothing was so bold as this explicit lavatory detail.
“The technique, the planning, George Tomasini’s editing, and Bernard Herrmann ‘s shrieking score for strings gave the shower scene precisely the effect Hitchcock wanted. (Originally he had designed the shower murder to be accompanied only by the cries of the woman and the splashing of the water. Herrmann, however, asked Hitchcock to hear the music he had composed for it, and afterward Hitchcock had to admit that the score significantly improved the scene.)”
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The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock
Author: Donald Spoto
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Copyright 1983, 1999 by Donald Spoto
Pages: 418-420
 
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Grown Up

So it seems like I’ve been here before

And to tell the truth

I have been growing up and growing down

I see myself a thousand times

Being a little child a thousand times

Being a grown up man

It seems like I’ve grown up a million times

and learn nothing in the process

and yet I’ve learned so much

I could fill a book with what I know

and there’s a whole library of things I don’t

and my card is expired

So where do I go from here?

That is the age-old question

Asked by the mystics, the sages and the mages on drama stages

Those who ever thought they had a idea of the future

or any kind of insight into history or just whatever

Saturday, good to the people of the day

Myself, however, I want to believe the truth

I want to follow the straight and narrow

Because I intended to be successful

I intend to be the best

and that’s just the way of it

Because I am

 

the rape of nanking — 8/30/17

Today’s selection — from Chiang Kai-Shek by Jonathan Fenby. The so-called “Rape of Nanking” witnessed atrocities that were among the most horrifying in the history of war. It was part of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1937 when Imperial Japan invaded China under Chiang Kai-Shek. Casualties in that war were estimated at between 20 and 35 million people. Nanking was the capital of the Republic of China and was upriver from Shanghai, China’s wealthiest and most important commercial city, which had already fallen to the Japanese:
“The Rape of Nanking was unique as an urban atrocity not only for the number of people who died but also for the way the Japanese went about their killing, the wanton individual cruelty, the reduction of the city’s inhabitants to the status of subhumans who could be murdered, tortured, and raped at will in an outburst of the basest instincts let loose in six weeks of terror and death. The death toll was put at 300,000 — some accounts set it even higher, though one source for the former figure, Harold Timperley of the Manchester Guardian, used it to refer to deaths in the Yangtze Valley as a whole.
“On the first day, a Japanese division killed more than 24,000 prisoners of war and fleeing soldiers. On the wharves by the river, coolies threw 20,000 bodies into the Yangtze before being killed themselves. Behind its white flags and Red Cross symbols, the foreign Safety Zone proved weak protection: indeed, by concentrating refugees there, it inadvertently provided a big target for the killers; the ‘good Nazi of Nanking’, the German John Rabe could only roam the streets trying to rescue individuals in his path.
 
The corpses of massacred victims on the shore of the Qinhuai River with a Japanese soldier standing nearby
“There were no imperial orders, as such, for the Rape of Nanking, and General Matsui gave senior officers a scathing rebuke after he entered the city for the victory parade on 17 December. But the general left for Shanghai two days later and, though he insisted there that misconduct must be severely punished, his words had no discernible effect. Any Chinese was liable to be a target. People were roped together and machine-gunned, doused with kerosene and set on fire. Thousands were buried alive — or put in holes up to their necks and then savaged by army dogs. Others were frozen to death after being thrown into icy ponds. Japanese soldiers used Chinese for bayonet practice. Civilians were nailed to boards and run over by vehicles, Mutilation, disembowelling and eye gouging took place before executions. People were sprayed with acid, or hung up by their tongues. Medical experiments were conducted in a former hospital where Chinese, known as ‘logs’, were injected with germs and poisons. Women, young and old, pregnant and ill, were raped in enormous numbers, and then killed, some with sticks rammed into their ******s. Foetuses were ripped from the bodies of expectant mothers. Other women were taken to so-called ‘comfort houses’ set up for the soldiers, who called the inmates ‘public toilets’.
“Japanese newspapers recorded a competition between two lieutenants to behead 100 Chinese with their swords. When they both passed the mark, it was not clear who had got there first, so the contest was extended to 150. One of the lieutenants described the competition as ‘fun’, though Japanese newspapers noted that he had damaged his blade on the helmet of a Chinese he cut in half. Revelling in their savagery, Japanese soldiers took photographs of the massacres and sent them to Shanghai to be developed; Chinese staff in the photographic shops passed copies to Rhodes Farmer who forwarded them to Look magazine in America in evidence of the horror.
“As the Nationalist capital, Nanking was obviously an important target where the Japanese wanted to achieve maximum humiliation of their adversary. But the sustained mass bestiality can better be explained — if it can be rationally explained at all — by the tensions that had built up in the army since the Shanghai battle erupted, by the knowledge of the Japanese troops that they were heavily outnumbered by the Chinese in the city, by the callousness bred in the previous four months — and, above all, by the dehumanisation of the Chinese which had become part of the psyche of the Imperial Army. The invaders saw the people around them as lower than animals, targets for a bloodlust which many, if not all, their commanders felt could only spur their men on to fight better. In his diary, one soldier described the Chinese as ‘ants crawling on the ground … a herd of ignorant sheep’. Another recorded that while raping a woman, his colleagues might consider her as human, but, when they killed her, ‘we just thought of her as something like a pig’.
“It seems certain that the Emperor in Tokyo knew at least the outline of what was going on. His uncle was in command, and Japanese newspapers reported the execution contests among officers as if they were sporting events. Hirohito still hoped that China could be defeated with one big blow, which Nanking might provide.”
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Chiang Kai-Shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost

Publisher: Carroll & Graf Publishers
Copyright 2003 by Jonathan Fenby
Pages: 307-309

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be simple and slow in speech — 8/24/17

Today’s encore selection — from Zhu Xi’s Reading of the Analects by Daniel K. Gardner. Confucius (551 – 479 BCE), a Chinese thinker and social philosopher whose influence extends to the present, attempts to define goodness. In the Analects, his definition of goodness starts with the “golden rule,” but he takes his concept further, famously stating that to be good one must be “resolute and firm, simple and slow in speech.” [Note: Most current historians do not believe that any specific documents can be said to have been written by Confucius]:
Confucius
“The Master said, ‘To be resolute and firm, simple and slow in speech, is to approach true goodness.’ (Analect 13.27 [17]). Commentator Wang Su said, ‘Gang [resolute] is to be without desire; yi [firm] is to be determined and daring; mu is to be [simple]; na [slow] is to be slow in speech. To be possessed of these four qualities is to approach true goodness.’ …
” ‘Simple and slow in speech’ becomes almost a refrain in the teachings of Confucius. For instance, in 12.3 he says, ‘The person of true goodness is restrained in speech.’ Throughout the text he repeatedly cautions his followers not to mistake eloquence for substance as in 1.3: ‘The Master said, Artful words and a pleasing countenance have little, indeed, to do with true goodness.’ …
“Zhu … wants to understand why this is so. The answer for him is partly that restraint in speech indicates a general self-restraint, which, in turn indicates that one’s original mind-and-heart with its endowed true goodness has been preserved and not won over by selfish desires. … For Zhu, words that are not simple but, rather, are ‘artful’ are evidence that one has become interested in ‘adorning oneself on the outside in an effort to please others, a matter of human desire’s having grown dissolute.’ “
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Author: Daniel K. Gardner
Copyright 2003 Columbia University Press
Pages: 75-76
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u.s. grant’s humiliation — 8/04/17

Today’s selection — from American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White.
U.S. presidents did not receive pensions until well into the 20th century. Prior to that time, a president was expected to return to work to earn his living after serving. For U.S. Grant, who was never well situated financially, this was a challenge. For this reason, late in his life, he joined a small Wall Street firm that had been started by his son Buck and Buck’s friend Ferdinand Ward, who was reputed to be a financial wizard. Soon he learned to his horror that his firm was nothing more than a Ponzi scheme, and he was soon destitute:
“Today, we might call [Ferdinand] Ward’s maneuvering a Ponzi scheme, made infa­mous by Bernie Madoff in 2008. In Grant’s day, it was called ‘rehypoth­ecating.’ It worked like this: Ward paid abnormally high interest to his customers by pledging securities as collateral on a loan, whereas the same securities had previously been pledged for other loans. As a result, Ward was able to pay his investors their interest by siphoning off money from new investments. None of his customers knew, including the two Grants. [By late 1883, Grant] estimated his wealth at $1.5 million, mostly thanks to Ward’s investments.  …
Wall Street Panic of 1884
“Sometime in early 1884, Horace Porter, Grant’s former aide and now president of the Pullman Palace Car Company, felt compelled to warn the general that the profits he had heard about could not be legitimate. It just so happened that when he arrived at Grant’s house, Ward was pres­ent. And after listening to the enthusiastic Ward and watching the gen­eral’s appreciative response, he withdrew, deciding not to interfere.
“On Sunday afternoon, May 4, 1884, Ferdinand Ward rang the door­bell at 3 East Sixty-sixth Street. Ward’s visits to Grant’s home were always welcome, but usually he did not come uninvited. A maid escorted him into the parlor, where he was greeted by Grant and Buck. He told the two men the Marine Bank was in grave difficulty because the city chamberlain had decided to withdraw some of the city’s funds.
“Grant expressed surprise and asked how this matter concerned him. Ward replied that since Grant and Ward had $660,000 deposited there, this could put the firm’s financial position in jeopardy.
“Buck interjected, But isn’t the bank good for the funds?
“Certainly. Nothing to be worried about in the long term. But the firm would need money to cover the potential shortfall. Ward said he already had checks for $230,000 but wondered if the general could borrow an­other $150,000 that day. Ward assured Grant the money would be needed for only twenty-four hours.
“Grant agreed to try to borrow the money. With Ward and Buck in tow, he traveled in his carriage down Fifth Avenue, stopping at the tur­reted fifty-eight-room home of William H. Vanderbilt. Once inside, em­barrassed by his unannounced call, Grant explained the reason for his visit. Vanderbilt, eldest son and heir of Commodore Cornelius Vander­bilt, made it a habit not to make personal loans. Known to be a cantanker­ous man, he told Grant, ‘I care nothing about Marine Bank. To tell the truth I care very little about Grant & Ward. But to accommodate you personally I will draw my check for the amount you ask. I consider it a personal loan to you and not to any other party.’
“Grant accepted the check for $150,000.
“He rejoined the younger men in the carriage and returned to Sixty­-sixth Street, where he endorsed the check and handed it to Ward. [The] young Napoleon assured the old general the whole matter would be all right.
“On Tuesday, May 6, the Marine Bank opened its doors promptly at ten A.M. The bank’s directors arrived and assembled for their weekly meeting. But … where was Ward? Someone contacted his office, but no one had seen him.
“The directors’ meeting ended at eleven A.M. A few minutes later, all doors to the bank were locked even as depositors began to congregate outside. …
“In midday, Grant arrived at his office at 2 Wall Street. Crowds milled in the street, but newspaper reporter Alexander Noyes wrote, ‘The gen­eral looked neither to right or left.’ As Noyes watched, ‘Nobody fol­lowed him, or spoke to him, but everyone in the cynical “hard-boiled” group took off his hat.’ The young reporter declared, ‘It was not so much a tribute of respect to a former Chief Magistrate as spontaneous recognition of the immense personal tragedy which was enacting before our eyes.’
“Behind closed doors, Grant asked Buck what had happened.
” ‘Grant and Ward has failed, and Ward has fled. You’d better go home, Father.’
“Not saying a word, Grant steadied himself on his crutches, which he still used five months after his [recent] fall, walked silently past the gathering crowd, and made his way home.
“Deeply humiliated, he told Julia all that had happened. Then he opened his wallet and removed its contents: $81. She had $130. All his dreams for retirement had vanished….
“Grant determined he would repay every debt, starting with what he owed William Vanderbilt. He prepared an accounting of all he owned: his farm in Missouri, homes in Galena, Philadelphia, and Washington, plus land in Chicago. He gathered his swords, campaign maps, the gold medal awarded by Congress, the pen used to write orders for the Battle of the Wilderness, and rare souvenirs acquired on his world tour. Julia con­tributed jewelry and vases, including her prize vase filled with gold coins given them in many countries. Grant held back nothing. In the end, he believed the total amounted to almost exactly $150,000.
“He sent everything off to Vanderbilt. Upon returning from a Euro­pean vacation to find Grant’s shipment, the financial titan was perplexed. He notified Grant he would return everything. Grant would not hear of it.
“In the end, Vanderbilt accepted the repayment and wrote Julia, ‘All articles of historical value and interest shall at the General’s death, or if you desire it sooner, be presented to the government at Washington where they will remain as perpetual memorials of his fame, and of the history of his time.’ Vanderbilt acted both to preserve Grant’s pride and to preserve his story for future American generations.
“Even though Vanderbilt took title to the house at 3 East Sixty-sixth Street, he insisted Grant and Julia continue to live there.
“The public did not blame Grant. Most Americans believed him an un­informed bystander to Ward’s gigantic swindle. Known and unknown persons stepped forward to help.
“Charles Wood, who owned a brush factory in Lansingburgh, New York, wrote the general, ‘I enclose check for five hundred dollars on ac­count my share due for services ending about April 1865.’ He did so be­cause ‘I owe you this for Appomattox.’ Reading of ‘the Grant Failure’ in the Troy Daily Press, Wood simply wanted to help.
“Grant immediately wrote Wood to acknowledge this gift from a stranger. Within days, two more checks from Wood totaling $1,000 ar­rived. ‘The country will rally for you but large bodies move slowly,’ he encouraged. …
“On the afternoon of May 27, the doorbell at 3 East Sixty-sixth Street rang. Once again, Ferdinand Ward stood at the entrance. Having been arrested on May 21, and destined to spend the next eight years in jail, he was free on bail. He wished to see Grant for only a few minutes. The general sent his answer: he had no more to say.”
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American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant

Publisher: Random House
Copyright 2016 by Ronald C. White
Pages 629-633

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